When Yoga Becomes Yog-ouch

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, or if you’re a student in my class, you may have noticed that I talk a lot about pain. “Are you some sort of masochist?”, you might wonder, “What is the deal?”

I can’t offer any good reason for my proclivity towards pain, other than the fact that I’m enormously intrigued by it. I hungrily eat up titles and teachings such as Break Through Difficult Emotions, When Things Fall Apart, and Listen to Your Pain. For me, “leaning into the sharp point” has produced some incredibly tender and humbling experiences, and learning how to work with those sharp points has proved liberating.

Though pain comes in all shapes, forms, and sizes. I want to talk here about physical pain, especially injuries, and especially injuries from yoga. To put it plainly, I have seen the writing on the wall. Twelve years of combined Bikram (and no more) and Power Yoga, with all of its Flow/Vinyasa variety, have taught me that yoga can easily become yog-ouch (a term yoga teacher Cora Wen coined when we were talking about… well, yoga :))

It is not that I enjoy injuries, I really don’t, despite what it may look like. I’d rather run without shin splints. I’d rather climb without rotator cuff tears. And in yoga, I’d much rather launch into a hand stand or fall into a drop back without undesirable consequences. But, injuries don’t care if I like them or not. They’re inevitable in any yoga tradition, under any tutelage. Since it is impossible to have a pain-free existence, I’ve taken on a personal quest to understand them and learn about them, in the hope that I can 1) avoid preventable injuries, and 2) work with the party-crashers, the injuries that show up without an invitation.

Additionally, as a yoga teacher, my job is to help others minimize the chances of getting injured by yoga. It’s almost a moral obligation, really. So you might imagine my crankiness when I see things that appear to undermine my effort (this is just a perceived reaction on my part, which may not reflect other people’s reality.) For example, a recent newsletter from a Seattle yoga studio touted how many calories you could burn in a hot yoga class, or another one advertised that Acro-yoga is for everyone. Really? Everyone?

Anyhow, today I received a newsletter from Yoga Journal in my inbox, and, as usually the case, I almost sent it to my Trash folder, but the title caught my eyes, “When Yoga Hurts”, it read. I’m glad I didn’t delete that email, because I got to read Roger Cole’s guide on how to avoid injuries on the mat by caring for your knees, hamstrings, and sacrum.

I admit, I haven’t been the biggest fan of Yoga Journal magazine lately. I can do without the onslaught of ads that verge between Maxim soft-core porn and Cosmo anorexic fashion. But that’s a different issue altogether, and I digress. I’ve got to give credit where credit is due, and kudos to Yoga Journal for paying attention to the fact that yoga doesn’t have to hurt.

Further reading:

My basic assessment is that Vinyasa Flow can be safe, but it is often not. Many students do not know proper alignment and form. Merely knowing what a pose is supposed to look like does not amount to knowing proper alignment and form.

One has to have an intimate understanding of how to engage the muscles in subtle ways, how to make minor adjustments to accommodate the quirks of one’s own body, and how to connect the poses safely in order to avoid injury in the long term.

In most Vinyasa Flow classes, however, teachers just bark out the names of poses, and students fling themselves mindlessly between poses without the slightest thought to smooth, controlled, safe movements. You can get a really kick-butt workout from doing Vinyasa Flow, even with bad form. But over time, the bad form will catch up with you. – Eugene Park